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Watering Systems for Grazing

By Kevin Gould

Most of the people who put in a pasture watering system say, “why didn’t I do this sooner! It makes things much easier—the cattle and manure stay in the pasture, the system is not that costly and is mostly trouble free.”

There are two basic approaches to watering systems on grazing land: either take the water to the animals, or provide limited access for the animals to go to the water.

Benefits of moving water to the livestock on pasture
Providing a clean, convenient water source in pastures separate from surface waters will benefit both livestock and water quality. Livestock perform better with cleaner water. Moving watering systems around the pasture improves grazing efficiency. Cattle will spend most of their grazing time close to a water source, so moving the water reduces overgrazing and better utilization of the entire pasture. More uniform grazing helps spread urine and manure around the entire pasture. When water is frequently moved, there is less chance of creating a mud hole by the water tank and a better opportunity to allow vegetation to re-grow in these areas. Systems that encourage livestock away from surface waters by moving water to the livestock also protect riparian areas by reducing erosion and sediment.

Putting a movable watering system in pastures
It sounds expensive, but conveying water to grazing paddocks is often the least expensive method of increasing grazing capacity. There are numerous options and combinations of systems that work, and many are inexpensive and low maintenance. Here are some pointers that can help you find the best options for your situation:

Daily water requirements
Next, consider the water source and options to move it to the paddocks. In Michigan, most farms have a good well with a main electric pressure pump. Utilizing existing water sources and any existing pumps is generally best because you only need to add pipe and connections to move water from a barn or well to the pastures. Should you bury the pipe or leave it on top of the ground? There is no right answer. Consider all options and choose a solution that works for you. Grass will grow over the pipe and keep the water cool but the plastic pipe does need protection from cattle and equipment traffic.

Sizing tanks and plastic pipe
You should take several things into account when determining the size of the system. On intensively grazed pastures where animals will come to drink as individuals from less than 900 feet away, provide a flow rate that supplies the daily needs in 4 to 8 hours and use a small tank that allows 2 percent to 4 percent of the herd to drink at a time. On extensive or large continuously grazed pastures where the water is more than 900 feet away, provide a tank than holds a minimum of 25 percent of the herd’s total daily needs and allows 5 percent to 10 percent of the herd to drink at one time. The tank refill time should be one hour or less.

Let’s do the math to see how this works:
If we have 40 beef cows and want to allow 20 gallons of water per head per day, 800 gallons of water needs to be delivered to the tank. If we want the tank to refill in 60 minutes or less and to hold 25 percent of the total daily needs, then 200 gallons must be pumped in 60 minutes or less.

200 gallons ÷ 60 minutes = 3.3 gal/minute that need to be pumped

One more example:
60 dairy cows x 25 gallons of water per head per day = 1,500 gallons of water per day. If you’re 1,500 feet from the water source, the cows will travel to the water source together. Therefore, you should plan on a 4-hour (240 min.) re-fill time.

1,500 gal ÷ 240 minutes = 6.25 gal per minute

A 1.75-inch pipe is needed to deliver the desired quantity of water. (Note that if the water has to go up a significant hill, it may take a bigger pipe because the flow rate will be decreased.)
Every situation is different but these examples provide a good starting point. Here are some other important considerations:

Alternative sources & supply ideas

What can you do when you don’t have electric power or a good pressurized well? Provide livestock with solid footing protected areas and access to a creek.
Ponds and dams can also help solve watering problems. Allow a protected place for cattle to drink or move the water from a pond to a water tank. There are number of ways to move surface water to a tank, including cattle-powered nose pumps, gravity, ram pump, solar, wind, sling, 12-volt sump pump and even small gasoline-driven pumps.
Be sure to do a cost analysis of the options available. In many cases, there is a low-cost watering option that can increase grazing capacity. Even paddocks a mile away can be watered by a 1,000-gallon tank on a wagon and hauled daily for a couple weeks. A tank on a wagon is also a great back up system to have in case of a pump failure.

Limited access of livestock to surface water
(Following is an excerpt from: A Guide to Managing Pasture Water: Stabilized Stream and Pond Access Sites, Dr. Jim Russell, Department of Animal Science and Shawn Shouse, Field Specialist, both from Iowa State University. For the complete article visit

Benefits of stabalized stream and pond access sites
Development of a stable access site to a stream or pond allows grazing animals access to water sources at selected sites while providing the opportunity to protect the remainder of the banks with exclusion fencing. This action may lessen the potential for erosion from stream banks or pond dams by maintaining vegetation and eliminating hoof traffic in sensitive areas.
Because of the discomfort caused by the footing and/or the confined areas associated with stabilized access sites, use of stabilized access sites may reduce the proportion of time cattle are present in pasture streams and ponds. As a result of this change in cattle distribution, the amounts of manure and urine deposited in the water source will be reduced, lessening the risks of pollution from manure nutrients and health problems from pathogenic organisms.
In addition to improving water quality, development of stabilized access sites on streams may provide crossings for animal movement or truck and machinery traffic.

Selecting the Best Stabalized Access Structure      
There are a number of approaches to developing stabilized access sites. The best option for you will depend on the characteristics of the site, purpose(s) of the structure, desired length of use, the level of investment and availability of labor for construction and maintenance.